The Perception of Image and Status in the Library Profession Deirdre Dupré

The Perception of Image and Status
in the Library Profession

DEIRDRE DUPRÉ

Publié la première fois dans NewBreed Librarian en août 2001

Ms. Dupré is a MLIS student at San Jose State University who recently began working part-time at the Sonoma State University Library in California. I met her at the NewBreed Librarian poster session this past June at ALA. The poster session sparked an adrenalizing conversation between us concerning librarians and their self image, specifically how librarians tend to be obsessed with « the stereotype » when everybody else really doesn’t care. She brought up her research, which centers on the self-defeating ways librarians perpetuate professional anxiety over less than satisfactory status and preoccupy themselves with the image much more than the outside perception of librarians warrants.

Her research fascinated me, for I had experienced some of the situations she brought up. I remember first starting my job as an academic reference librarian and being told that the faculty in departments across campus don’t think of librarians as equals; however, I had never experienced snubbing by any of the departmental faculty I worked with. I decided that my relations with faculty would determine the notions I formed of them and their ideas of me. I never passed on to newer librarians what I soon learned to be a common librarian’s myth: we aren’t valued.

I also witnessed doormat behavior, where librarians would repeatedly put themselves out to ingratiatingly accomodate a high-hat patron. From this I learned that if you project yourself as unworthy or less than, people will treat you that way. If you respect what you do and regard it as consequential, your time is just as important as the Superstar Faculty Researcher and Big Wig Pollywog. They will appreciate you for your backbone and respect what you can do for them.

Although I don’t completely agree – at least not to the same degree – with everything Ms.Dupré writes in this paper, I think it is important that these ideas have a forum where they can be disseminated, evaluated, and discussed. And for the record, Deirdre is happy to report that the librarians she has met at the Sonoma State University Library have a very positive image of themselves as librarians and are quite proud of their profession.

-Juanita Benedicto


When I began my education in Library Science at San Jose State University and started reading the literature of the field, I was greatly dismayed to repeatedly read that librarians believe they are not respected as a professional group. The reading material I was exposed to was designed to educate new library science students on the history of libraries and librarianship, their connection to society, intellectual freedom, and the future of information dissemination. Yet while reading, I noticed a disturbing theme: librarians are very insecure about their profession – so insecure that it has become a pervasive anxiety throughout the field of librarianship. While some insecurity results from the undesirable physical stereotype of librarians perpetuated by the popular media, library literature is the real offender as it portrays the more serious crisis of professional insecurity, i.e., the feeling of not being valuable or valued by others. To make matters worse, newcomers to the library profession adopt this insecurity through their exposure to the literature of the field, thereby creating a vicious cycle.

The Historical Context
The readings I studied in my courses offered numerous examples of library professionals lamenting their perceived poor status of the « …librarians are very insecure about their profession – so insecure that it has become a pervasive anxiety throughout the field of librarianship. » library field. Where did this concern with status begin? There had to be some impetus to not feeling valued. I found some fascinating possibilities in Richard E. Rubin’s book Foundations of Library and Information Science.

One possibility is the founding of the American Library Association (ALA) in 1876. Rubin states that this was an « important guidepost » as the creation of the ALA « substantially increases professional identity » and provides « librarianship with an identity outside the profession » (2000). These statements, while seeming to promote the benefits of the presence of the ALA to the profession, actually illustrate Rubin’s point of view (and potentially the point of view of the founders of the ALA): that the profession of librarianship did not currently have enough of an identity either inside or outside of the profession. By saying that the ALA was needed to increase professional identity, Rubin implies that the founders thought that the current professional identity was somehow lacking. Librarians of the time, impressed with the idea of being represented by their new professional association, may not have noticed the implied insult to their self-image, but simply internalized the idea that their profession was lacking a suitable identity. Perhaps now that the ALA was there for them, their profession would be more valued. But this kind of thinking reinforces the idea that librarianship was somehow not producing an acceptable self-image and was not already valued prior to the creation of the ALA.

Another possibility as to an initial source of librarians’ professional insecurity is Melvil Dewey. Considered a « prime force in the professionalization of librarianship » (Rubin 2000), Dewey contributed hugely to the field of librarianship. Yet he may also have contributed to the lack of a secure self-image when he wrote « The time has come when a librarian may without assumption speak of his occupation as a profession » (Rubin 2000). Although he seemed to be trying to promote librarianship as a profession, his statement implies that for some, unnamed reason, before that « time » had come, librarians could not call their occupation a profession. Had not librarianship previously been a true profession?

The Current Context
A huge amount of professional uncertainty is passed on through library literature. When I read in Harris, Hannah, and Harris’ book Into the Future that « The librarian of the electronic age could become a valued professional » (Harris et al. 1998), I think that librarians are not currently valued professionals. When suggesting that a librarian can become a valued professional, supported evidence is needed to show that the librarian was not already a valued professional.

Professional insecurity is also spread throughout the profession by the fact that librarians spend much time and energy in an effort to connect to each other through writing and professional organizations. Professional organizations abound and membership is highly recommended by library science educators. Yet George Bobinski wonders in his article, Is the Library Profession « The three-year existence of a column – in the main journal for the profession published by the ALA – that focused solely on the image of librarians is a prime example of the obsessive nature with which librarians undertake the issue of their image. » Over-Organized? about the « proliferation of library associations » (2000). Bobinski declares that librarians spend « too much time talking and writing to ourselves » in professional library organizations and publications. Since a good number of these written communications focus on the lack of status of the library profession, how to improve librarians’ status, image stereotypes of librarians, and similar themes these writings are a supremely effective way for members of the library profession to obsess about their status anxiety.

A prime example of this obsession over status anxiety is seen in the regular column introduced by American Libraries entitled « Image: How They’re Seeing Us. » This column continued from January 1985 through 1988 and « highlighted representations of librarians and their work from various media » (Engle 1998). The three-year existence of a column – in the main journal for the profession published by the ALA – that focused solely on the image of librarians is a prime example of the obsessive nature with which librarians undertake the issue of their image.

This obsession with image is detrimental to librarians’ perception of their professional status. Many articles in library journals record instances and complain about examples (from popular media) of the stereotypical image of the librarian as an old spinster with a bun and sensible shoes. But this obsession with the physical-image stereotype is partly responsible for the professional anxiety that plagues librarianship. As Roma Harris points out « librarians’ self-consciousness with their image is counterproductive especially when its leads to self-depreciation of their profession » (Rubin 2000). It seems that physical-image issues are at the root of professional insecurity and need to be eliminated for librarians to improve their perceptions of their professional status. In relating a fellow librarian’s experience with image stereotypes, Angelynn King comments that « having internalized [other people’s stereotypes] himself he’s making [the stereotypes] worse » (1999). Obsession with image and internalization of negative stereotypical images have caused librarians to doubt the worthiness of the profession as a whole. It’s not the stereotype that’s the problem, it’s the obsession with the stereotype.

Analysis of the Current Situation
The references for this paper show the large number of current resources centered on the issue of image and librarianship. I contend that these writings are the main method of causing others to adopt the field’s professional anxiety. For example, Dan T. Hutchins and Joan Davis mention in their article that « ALA has a serious problem: How do you make a … job, one that carries with it no social status or power … attractive? If ever there were a profession badly in need of reinventing itself this is the one! » (Hutchins & Travis 2000). By sharing their poor professional image in writing, Mr. Hutchins and Ms. Davis add to the library field’s professional insecurity. The authors focus on what they perceive as lacking in the library profession and inform others that librarians clearly have no social status or power.

Not surprisingly, there is an entire website devoted to « Image and The Librarian » (Marinelli & Baker). This website was very informative for my research, but it unfortunately perpetuates librarians’ unhealthy self-concept with articles such as, « We Aren’t a Stereotype » by Hutchins, « The Image of Librarians: Substance or Shadow? » by Schuman, « Just a Librarian? Who Do They Think We Are?’ by Valenza, « Our Image as Images Go » by Manley, and « And We Wonder About Our Image! » by Herring.

When a library science student reads material like this, he might believe that librarians have a bad professional image both inside and outside the profession. That student then graduates library science school and begins working in the field as a librarian bringing his poor professional image with him and sharing it with his colleagues. His colleagues also share their professional anxiety with him, thereby reinforcing everyone’s insecurities. The librarian begins to publish articles on the topic of professional insecurity in library science journals, struggling to shed some light on why no one seems to respect librarians. He reads the writings of others in the field who also worry over the poor image of librarians. All of these writings are then read by the next crop of library science students, and the cycle is repeated. Just as Bulimia and Anorexia can be passed from one person to another through intimacy – for example the closeness shared by college roommates (Comer 1996) – librarians pass their professional image anxiety to others in the profession and to those just joining the profession through their working relationships and their published writings.

Then there are the new breed of « image busters » (Brewerton 1999) that are striving to show an alternative view of what it means to be a librarian. Sites like the Anarchist Librarian, the Belly Dancing Librarian, Librarian Avengers, and the Modified Librarian seem to present an unified front of librarian pride. These alternative librarians offer glimpses into the varied lifestyles of librarians to show their pride in all parts of their lifestyle (including their chosen career as librarians), but are once again trying to combat the stereotype of the bun-wearing librarian. I think that the considerable time and energy these librarians are spending to buck the physical-image stereotype of librarians indicates that they too are obsessed with the image of librarians. As mentioned earlier, Roma Harris concludes that « By relegating the physical-image stereotype to nothing more than a joke, and not allowing the stereotype grow into a commentary on the value of the profession, librarians can focus on healing the professional insecurity that is so pervasive in the field. » self-consciousness with image damages a librarian’s perception of the value of the profession. Publicizing that a librarian can also be a belly dancer or have a tattoo, these librarians are actually defending the worth of professional librarianship. While it is admirable that these librarians are making an effort to uphold their profession as worthy, the underlying message is « we are here to convince you (and ourselves) that we are worthy since society doesn’t recognize our merit. » However, I am left with impression that they are not yet convinced of their professional utility. Still, I must admit that the alternative librarians’ declaration of professional pride, shared by showing the variety of librarians’ personal interests, is at least a positive attempt to improve the image of librarians to those outside the profession.

In studying this issue I fear that my hyper-focus on the perception of image and status has caused my objectivity to disappear and I too have adopted the library field’s poor professional image. I realize that while I am criticizing the tendency to be overly concerned with image, I too have fallen into the librarian-image collecting hobby. In doing the research for this paper I was enthralled by each successive article, comic, or web site that portrayed librarians. So my premise about the contagious nature of image consciousness is evidenced by my own experience with becoming overly sensitive about the image of librarians. Even Brewerton admits to being « obsessed with the image of our profession » (1999) as a result of his research on the topic. Librarians are doomed to remain insecure about the profession because we are still so obsessed with our image.

To combat this, we must separate the issue of professional insecurity from the issue of distaste for the physical-image stereotype. For while the physical-image stereotype is annoying, it should not be given such importance as to erode the professional pride librarians should have for their profession. Andrew Pace points out in his article, Marketing Our Strengths, that « we all make jokes about lawyers, mechanics, politicians, etc., but when it comes down to it we all still rely on their services. Satirizing professional images has become … a postmodern activity » (2000). By relegating the physical-image stereotype to nothing more than a joke, and not allowing the stereotype grow into a commentary on the value of the profession, librarians can focus on healing the professional insecurity that is so pervasive in the field.

Implications for Library Management
Professional insecurity is not typically considered a management issue. The literature on librarians and image tends to be op-ed pieces that do not mention management topics. Books, and chapters in books, focus on historical overviews of the library field. Yet it is important to notice that the current problematic perception of both the librarians’ image and the profession’s status was brought about by the profession’s procedures in the management areas of organizational structure, leadership, power and authority, and communication.

By looking at the whole library profession as a single organization we can better understand how one librarian’s actions can affect others in the field. The organizational structure of the library profession promotes the sharing of opinions and attitudes through the profession’s literature and group gatherings like conventions. Additionally, new members to the organization (library science students) are indoctrinated into the current prevailing attitudes via their professors’ attitudes, exposure to the opinions voiced in the assigned readings, and the highly encouraged (if not mandatory) membership into professional associations, as well as attendance at professional conventions. This organizational « Since leaders in librarianship are often also the main authors of the literature in our field, and because prolific authors are granted leadership status in a field that values the written word, the librarians who write for professional journals and publish books have a tremendous amount of influence on the profession. » structure allows for a communication of perceptions that is similar to how, in a single library, the attitude of the director can trickle down to affect all the employees of that library. Likewise, the attitude of leaders in the library profession can affect all the members of the profession. Organizational structure then, plays a large part in allowing professional insecurity and obsession with image to be perpetually communicated to all members.

Since leaders in librarianship are often also the main authors of the literature in our field, and because prolific authors are granted leadership status in a field that values the written word, the librarians who write for professional journals and publish books have a tremendous amount of influence on the profession. When a librarian is allowed to publish an article in a professional journal it is implied that the views expressed in the article are somehow valid simply by their being published. In a juried publication, the accepted articles carry the stamp of having been accepted by well-respected leaders in the field, giving the articles and the authors even more clout. Since authors of professional literature in library science are almost automatically given leadership status in the field, the question of authority arises. Authority is often mistakenly attributed to those in power simply because power and authority often go together. It seems that « …it’s time we got over our public image and started concentrating on the portrayal of the services that libraries provide. » both power and authority are granted to authors in the library profession due to the simple fact that they are published, giving them an opportunity to contribute to the continuing professional insecurity through their writings.

Additionally, professional insecurity greatly affects traditional management concerns like employee motivation, recruitment of librarians, retention of quality staff, and salary issues. A librarian suffering from professional insecurity may feel generally lackluster about his job, resulting in an unmotivated work style. It is difficult for a librarian to muster up enthusiasm for his daily work if he feels that his profession is not a worthy one. Likewise, librarians who feel professionally insecure may be tempted to look for another line of work, or may job hop from library to library in an attempt to find the element supposedly lacking in their chosen career. Plus, a librarian who feels insecure about his profession is more likely to desire a large salary to ease his feelings of professional anxiety. All of these situations cause extra work for managers who need to constantly replace employees.

Since the problem of professional insecurity is currently disseminated throughout the entire library field (though admittedly not adopted by every single librarian), and is perpetuated at library conventions and in professional literature, the solution requires a grass roots approach. If the librarians at a single library are able to overcome their professional insecurity, then those librarians can begin to help their colleagues by sharing their new outlook in library journals and at future conventions. If this is repeated at several institutions a new pride in librarianship can begin to spread out across the entire profession. Thus, library managers can help their employees overcome professional insecurity by finding ways to show their own pride. Bob Usherwood proposes in his article, Rediscover the Public Librarian: Your Value and Worth, that it is time to « rediscover our confidence in ourselves and our professional skills » (2000). Usherwoord’s article has many examples of how librarians prove « …the real limitations that rob us of our freedom to make the best of what we have and/or what we are, have to do with the way we see ourselves… » their value by what they provide to society. Thus, the focus of management should not be to combat poor image or professional insecurity directly, but rather to focus on what services, expertise, and efforts to protect intellectual freedom that librarians provide for their patrons and society at large. Andrew Pace suggests « it’s time we got over our public image and started concentrating on the portrayal of the services that libraries provide » (2000).

Prospects for the Future
Jennifer Cram, in writing about the self limitations that librarians place on themselves states « the real limitations that rob us of our freedom to make the best of what we have and/or what we are, have to do with the way we see ourselves… » (1991). This then is the key realization that librarians need to arrive at to begin to change their perception that the library profession holds an inferior status. Once librarians let everyone know (including their peers) that librarianship is something to be proud of, that the profession of being a librarian is worthy, then the idea that the library profession’s status is in trouble will begin to die out. However, this paradigm-breaking idea that the library profession is valuable must be shared with considerable subtly. Cram points out that « the more you shout that there is no problem, the more you plant the idea that there is a problem » (1991). This was the paradox of Dewey’s pronouncement that the profession was now something to be proud of; it planted the idea that the profession was somehow shoddy previously. This was also the problem that I found with the alternative librarian websites, that they were trying too hard to convince the public of their professional pride and instead seemed unconvinced themselves.

A more successful approach is for librarians to be reserved when sharing the message that the library profession is highly valued by those in the profession. When a person is utterly convinced of the value of his profession he does not need to force others to believe in his professional pride with lots of loud proclamations. Instead his actions, like encouraging others to join the profession, remaining with and succeeding highly at his organization, and exuding confidence that his profession is valued by his peers and society, show that he has no professional insecurity. This way, librarians can convince their peers and the outside world as to the greatness of what they do.

An excellent example of a librarian refusing to add to the spread of professional insecurity and instead sharing an idea for fostering « When a person is utterly convinced of the value of his profession he does not need to force others to believe in his professional pride with lots of loud proclamations. Instead his actions, like encouraging others to join the profession, remaining with and succeeding highly at his organization, and exuding confidence that his profession is valued by his peers and society, show that he has no professional insecurity. » self-love within the profession is GraceAnne DeCandido’s 1996 commencement address «  Ten Graces for New Librarians » given to the graduating class of the School of Information Science and Policy at the State University of New York at Albany. She states:

« Develop a strong sense of your own self-worth and the worth of the profession. Honor and respect the women and men you work with… . In the words of the ancient Jewish philosopher Hillel ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?' »

If heeded, DeCandido’s words would spread enthusiasm for the profession to all those currently in the profession who have unfortunately already adopted the insecurities of the field. An influx into the field of librarianship of new librarians who are proud of their profession can instigate an innovative, healthy professional pride.

In conclusion, the solution to the problem of librarians’ poor perception of both their image and the status of the library profession has several steps. First, separate the issue of obsession with physical-image stereotypes from the issue of professional insecurity, so that the physical-image issue can be seen in humorous light and given much less control over librarians’ self perception. Second, persuade library managers to encourage their employees’ pride in the profession by offering themselves as examples of librarians who are secure about the status of librarianship as a profession. Third, have those librarians who feel proud of their profession, especially librarians new to the field, share their uplifting attitude with colleagues through writings published in the professional literature.

References

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© Copyright 2001, NewBreed Librarian. All rights reserved.

©HERMÈS : revue critique et Deirdre Dupré
ISSN- 1481-0301
Créée le vendredi 18 août 2000
À jour le mercredi 03 octobre 2001

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